Chapter 16: Road to Cloud Hill (part 2)

The biggest thing that Miyo was finding herself having to get used to was seeing a different coastline over her left shoulder. Having spent most of her time on the eastern coast, Miyo had gotten used to seeing the smooth curve of the beaches there from her hikes. But the western coast curved in ways she wasn’t used to seeing, and she had to remember to focus on the road rather than the scenery.


‘Maybe that’s why there’s that rule about not operating transportation on your own during the pilgrimage,’ Miyo thought wryly as she settled her attention yet again. Walking certainly forced specialists to experience each island more intimately. After all, packed within each tea leaf were the sights and sounds of that forest or valley that tea was grown in. “Having a better understanding of the place gives a better understanding of its tea,” were what the masters would say.


That’s what had bothered Miyo when she drank the black tea in Eimi’s garage. When she had first had that tea, it was during an early part of her pilgrimage. It had been a cold, rainy day on Mist Island – which was normal, Master Amano had cheerfully said through her chattering teeth.


And it had been evident in the tea they shared while huddled around the small stove. With gray clouds all around and the rain tapping relentlessly on the rooftop of Master Amano’s shop, Miyo swore she could taste the tea’s longing for the sun.


But that had been completely different from the warmth and bright laughter that so forcefully came to her mind when she drank the same tea with Eimi. There had been a touch of magic in it, Miyo knew that for certain. But why had the tea been tampered with? Had it been this Tomo that Eimi had mentioned who had muddled the tea? Or had this person been conned?


Miyo sighed, letting the breath deliberately relax the tension that had built up in her shoulders. ‘You’re a tea master, not a detective,’ she scolded herself. While it was not uncommon for rare teas to be “misrepresented,” the more common situation was that tins were just mislabeled. ‘There’s surely a simple explanation to this,’ Miyo thought as she started to come across more houses. ‘Just keep an open mind and you’ll find it.’


She came across the place just as Eimi had described, two mango trees flanking a small house on the corner of the road. It was an older building, one that may have been well-maintained its past but now had vines crawling up the walls, the paint having faded long ago. The front yard wasn’t in much better shape, though it seemed to be used more as a parking lot as there were already several vehicles parked there. With a feeling of apprehension, Miyo eased the motorcycle into an empty space and pushed open the front door.


Miyo froze, unsure for a moment if she had stepped into someone’s home. It was an open space that held the kitchen area in the center, while tables and chairs were spread out on either side. She spotted a few people seated at different tables and wondered if it was restaurant or a private dining room.


The woman at the stove turned at her arrival, gray hair pulled back over kind eyes and a bright smile. “Welcome! Please make yourself at home, dear. Is it a late breakfast or an early lunch for you?”


Miyo couldn’t take her gaze away from the long wooden spoon that was continuing to stir in the pot on its own. “Yes,” she answered in a daze.


The woman laughed. “Well, sounds like you’re hungry. Don’t worry, ol’ Tomo will fill you up. Go on and take a seat where you like.”


It wasn’t until she had sat down that Miyo was able to shake out of her amazement. She peered into the kitchen area, noting that everything seemed quite ordinary – the pots, pans, and kitchenware were all recognizable. But the way Tomo moved among everything, the items floating in midair, then picking up and letting go of self-moving moving ware, that was certainly something out of the ordinary. At least, not for Miyo.


Growing up, her mother had rarely used magic on land. Full-blooded sirens really couldn’t use more than the simplest spells without falling into water fever. Though there had been plenty of singing in their home, Miyo’s practice of magic had been limited to outings to the ocean. But there was something about the hum of magic here that was pulling at a vague memory of a kitchen that was as warm as this, but with more than a dozen people…


‘Well, it seems like a dozen people,’ Miyo thought as she watched all the activity around Tomo. There were vegetables being peeled and chopped by themselves, eggs whisked, and pots either being stirred or fanned. Miyo frowned, then listened closely, with both her ears and that inner sense tied to the magic.


Tomo set some flour into a sieve and began to shake it into a bowl, only to leave it midway to rummage in a cupboard. She took out a jar and emptied its contents into one of the pots, joined by some chopped vegetables from one of the cutting boards. Miyo caught the song there – she could trace the song Tomo had used to lift the cutting board and push the vegetables into the pot. But what she couldn’t hear was the song that was making the sieve shake back and forth. ‘How could it be moving without magic?’


Miyo was so deep in thought that she didn’t notice Tomo until she was setting a tray in front of her. Her eyes widened and her stomach let out a rumble. “This looks amazing,” she said with a short, incredulous laugh at the myriad of colors within the dozen of plates and bowls. Then she looked up sheepishly. “What is all of this?”


Tomo grinned. “I figured this was your first time eating a traditional breakfast.” She went through and explained all of the dishes, especially how these fruits came from her own yard, or those vegetables came from her neighbor’s nephew’s best friend.


“Most people don’t have time to eat the full breakfast nowadays.” Tomo stepped back to the stove and check on one of the pots. “But that just means they come in hungry for lunch,” she said with a wink over her shoulder.


Miyo ate with gusto. “How long have you had this restaurant?” she asked in between bites.


“Always!” Tomo said with a laugh. “We didn’t start here though. When I was a little girl, my grandparents opened up by the docks. We’re meant to be by the sea after all,” she said with a wistful note in her voice. She paused in her chopping, though the knife continued on without her. “But things changed after the war so they relocated the restaurant the same time everyone else was moving up here. Been here ever since.”


“And it’s just you?”


Tomo waved a spatula dismissively. “Oh, Ana from down the street comes around every now and then to help with the dishes, but everyone’s busy these days. Thank goodness for Ryou’s magi-tech though. Grandma taught me a little magic but it wasn’t enough to run this whole place.”


“Ryou’s magi-tech?” Miyo echoed with a tilt of her head.


“That old company his family owns. They have magi-tech for everything – pots, pans, trucks, boats.” Tomo paused for a bit, the fire flaring as she sauteed, lighting her face in a way that seemed familiar to Miyo but she couldn’t place.


Tomo continued as she cleared the tray from Miyo’s table. “His parents are from here. Ryou used to have toast without the crust please,” she said with a grin. “He was a smart boy and his parents enrolled him in one of those private schools at the capital. Whenever he came back, he always had some new magi-tech that he’d made.”


She came back and set a mug of tea and a plate of sweets in front of Miyo before going back to her cooking. Tempting as the sweets were, it was the tea that Miyo focused on. It was the same tea she’d had with Eimi.


Miyo lifted the mug and breathed in its scent. If she closed her eyes, shut her ears, and let the steam fill her lungs, she could probably make the memory of Mist Island come back.


But she didn’t. Instead, Miyo picked up the mug and took in as much as she could – the pictures that filled the walls with a lively energy; the birdsong from outside of the window mingling with the bright, rhythmic clanging of the spatula against the pan; the myriad of smells that continued to pique her appetite. And flowing freely among all of these was Tomo’s magic, joyous and gracious at every turn.


Miyo shook her head, rueful as she recalled the careful plans she had laid as she had ridden up. ‘Well,’ she thought as she took a sip of her tea, ‘I could either be frustrated with myself for not knowing yet again something seemingly basic, or I could be grateful that I finally learned it.’


Sitting as she was, warm and content, it was an easy choice. Miyo let herself get swept away by it all, feeling as if she was also soaking in the cozy energy of the room. She wondered idly if her own customers ever felt this comfortable in her shop.


“Eimi called and said you were interested in that tea. It’s from Tameshi over on the next hill. If you’re going to see her, could you do me a favor a take one of these lunchboxes to her?  The rest can go to the Sokuda teahouse down the street from her,” Tomo said, motioning towards a stack wrapped in cloth on the island table. “Both of them always forget to send someone to pick them up.”


Miyo blinked. ‘A tea farm, here on Crescent Island?’ She stood up and reached for the stack. “Sure,” she said.


But before Miyo could pick it up, Tomo placed a smaller cloth bag on top. “That’s for you – I saw you liked those fruits,” Tomo said with a grin. “Besides, I recognize that motorcycle anywhere. A friend of Ryou is family. When you come back again, I’ll have you try something new, okay?”


Miyo grinned, knowing for certain that she would be returning. As she carried everything back to the bike, that faint memory stirred again, as if she had done something similar a long time ago.


She took a moment to look at the building again before starting up the motorcycle. What had seemed neglected and dilapitated Miyo now realized was simply the natural course of things after so many years. In fact, it gave the place a certain charm, evidence of the legacy that Tomo continued to carry out today. Miyo had to admire that, as well as the fact that Tomo was doing everything on her own. It made her own efforts with the tea shop seem paltry in comparison.


Miyo nodded to herself as she turned the engine. She would certainly be back. There was a lot she could learn from Tomo. ‘And more things to eat as well,’ she thought with a chuckle and pulled out into the road, curious to see what was waiting over the next hill.

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